Gary James' Interview With Fred La Bour Of
Riders In The Sky
Fred La Bour, or "Too Slim" as he's also known, is a musician, a writer and the guy who played a part in spreading the 1969 rumor Is Paul McCartney Dead? There's just so much to talk about, so we started with the release of his newest book, The Official Sidekick Handbook: How To Unleash Your Inner Second banana And Find True Happiness (Gibbs Smith, P.O. Box 667, Layton, Utah 84041. Website:
Q - Fred, you must have been thinking about this Side-Kick book for quite awhile. How long had you in fact been thinking about putting this book out?
A - I think I saw a Roy Rogers movie and I kept waiting for the music to stop so that Gabby could get back on the screen. I think it goes back to that and understanding that the side-kick was a critical role and it was also a role that I was sort of born to play. So, I began to think about it more and more. I said maybe it's time to celebrate this, (laughs) the notion that being number one may not be the best career choice for a lot of people. It is certainly for some people, but maybe not for all people. Maybe being second banana can be a wonderful thing, and a useful thing.
Q - Would you be referring to, in your life, finding happiness as being a back-up guy to say the lead singer?
A - Exactly. That's certainly one of the rules, yeah. In fact, I talked about Little Steven in the book as a quintessential second banana and in fact everybody in the E Street Band has taken a turn at being the second banana, and that's probably why there's great longevity there. It's sort of unparallel longevity in that world.
Q - Clarence Clemons was a celebrated second banana.
A - He certainly was. That's a sad day.
Q - And you could also be referring to a band that serves as the opening act for a headlining act and is happy to do it!
A - I think people with longevity in show business, many of them come to that realization. I currently have, as a member of a band that has been around for almost 34 years and has never been right at the top. We've had moments when we were really hot, but then moments when we weren't, and yet we still keep working. I mean, we're always in the mix there somewhere. There's an anecdote in the book where Minnie Pearl told me, "You don't want to be the headliner. Be the second one 'cause you can always work. You can take the cheaper Fairs." (laughs) You can get tons of work if you're the opening act. That was her philosophy. (laughs) Just be glad you're in the mix somewhere.
Q - You're gearing this book to who? Maybe a high-powered A-Type personality who suffers a heart attack and decides to fall back and be content with being a second banana?
A - I think there's that sense in it. I hope so. Absolutely. Also people that maybe beat themselves up and say "I just don't want to sacrifice what it's gonna take to get to that number one position and feel bad about it. You don't have to think of it in those ways. There's another way to think about it. There's fun and solace and useful to society and philosophically it's good for you, spiritually for your own self. (laughs)
Q - You keep laughing at your answers. Why?
A - Well, it just seems odd to me to be speaking so seriously about a subject that I think is a funny subject. The point of the book was to entertain, to be funny.
Q - The most famous second banana was probably Ed McMahon.
A - Yes.
Q - Ed McMahon was content to play second banana to Johnny Carson. Outside of that studio and that show, he was not. Just look at his work with Star Search. He wanted to be number one. So, there are people like Ed McMahon out there as well, aren't there?
A - Yes. Interesting point. When you mention second banana and you tell people you're working on a book, they say "Oh, yeah. Ed McMahon." He's sort of the Gold Standard, the supportive guy who always has the number one's back and laughs at the joke or turns the joke on himself sometimes, or saves the joke, but does not steal the spotlight. There's a sentence in the book that the talk show side-kick was born on the second night of the first talk show when the host realized that the audience didn't realize what he was saying was funny. (laughs) So, sometimes the audience needs little clues that, oh, this is supposed to be funny. Oh, I get it. That guy is laughing, so I'll laugh too. There's sort of that dynamic going on too.
Q - And Johnny Carson was funny.
A - Yeah. He was great. He was a master, but he was a master in conversation and Ed, before the guests came out, he was the conversation. He was the foil. They had the private jokes and the "in" jokes. The side-kick, as the book points out, can get away with needling. You can tease a little bit and the host likes that. The number one guy likes that 'cause it sort of shows his humility. "I'm just like everybody else." You can tease him, but you can't go too far. There would be times on The Tonight Show when Johnny would just give him a look, like "OK, that's as far as we're gonna go with that." (laughs) Ed would say "Yeah, that's as far as we're going," whether it was talking about the drinking or the divorces or whatever. It was all in good fun. But there was a point you did not cross.
Q - And maybe there were times when they had to do a show that they didn't feel like being funny, but when they hit that mark, they were funny.
A - Right. Exactly. Many, many people can relate to that type of humor. Many people have been divorced. It's a different creation of the same scene. (laughs)
Q - You have a degree.
A - I do.
Q - A Masters degree.
A - Actually a Bachelor's degree in Wildlife Management.
Q - Now, how did that prepare you for life on the road?
A - (laughs) I'm the only one in the band currently using his degree, actually. It enables me to see that populations go up and down and that there's a relationship between predator and prey. As the prey population increases, sooner or later the predator population pops up too. Then the population of prey crashes and the population of predators crashes 'cause there's nothing left to eat. So, seeing those population curves, when I was in college, profoundly affected my show biz sensibility and my philosophy.
Q - Did you ever use that degree from any employment?
A - I never did. As soon as I got out of college, I said I want to play music 'cause I had played music in high school. As soon as I got out of college, it was like "this is what I really want to do. I've got to try this." I moved to Nashville and started writing songs and began pursuing that.
Q - What a lucky guy! You never had a straight job.
A - Oh, I had plenty of straight jobs. I was a galvanizer and a puppeteer, but yeah, I've avoided real work pretty strenuously. See, I'm a side-kick. I'm limited. I'm the only Western side-kick currently making a living as far as I know. I'm a side-kick to Ranger Doug. We have a show on satellite radio on Sirius XM. So, it works.
Q - Unfortunately it's another thing you have to pay for.
A - I know.
Q - Too bad it couldn't be made more affordable to the masses of people.
A - Yeah. I agree
Q - What do you do on this Sirius radio show of yours?
A - Ranger Doug and I have a show on Sirius XM called Classic Cowboy Corral. The thing about satellite radio is it's great for niche markets and under-served markets. We play songs from the '30s, '40s and '50s of Western music. Songs from the Silver Screen, the Golden Age of the singing cowboy. All the great groups that are pretty much forgotten that existed in that time, hot instrumentals and great vocal harmony, yodeling and what not. We do that for an hour every week.
Q - Where do you produce your show from?
A - We do it here in Nashville. We just have a studio that one of the guys has in his house. We just go in and cut 'em in the studio and then send them to Sirius XM.
Q - Now, you're one of these guys who started this rumor Paul McCartney Is Dead, aren't you?
A - Yeah, I am.
Q - Would you be surprised to know there are people who are convinced that Paul McCartney is dead?
A - I'm not surprised because they call me sometimes. (laughs)
Q - This rumor has taken on a life of its own.
A - Yes, it has. People call me up and say "Hey, have you seen this new evidence?" (laughs) They'll say "You don't believe it, do you?" I'll say "Of course I don't. I made it up." And they'll say "But, there's new evidence!" I'll say "OK." (laughs)
Q - Why did you decide on Paul McCartney? Why not Mick Jagger?
A - Well, I was driving in my car on my way to Jackson, Michigan in 1969 and listened to a radio show out of Detroit. A guy called into the radio station, to Russ Gibb's radio show, and said, "Something's going on with The Beatles." It was sort of an anonymous call. I think people have tracked it down since then. "There's something going on with Paul. He's wearing a black carnation instead of a red one. There's a hand over his head in this picture. At the end of the song it says I buried Paul." I had to review "Abbey Road" for the student newspaper. I was a sports writer and arts writer for the student paper, The Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan. I talked to my friend that night and we were laughing about it. But, there was something about it that really raised the hair on my neck. It sort of sounded true, like it could be true. So, I invented a scenario and plugged in all these clues into this made-up scenario where he's been killed in a car wreck and had been replaced through a look-a-like contest and this guy named William Campbell had taken over. So, that's how it came to be. We published it on the second page of the paper where the arts and some of the silly stories ran. It was never run as a news story. People just believed it. There was enough there and it sounded sort of true enough that, like you say, took on a life of its own. It was astounding to me.
Q - Did you come up with that OPD (Officially Pronounced Dead) patch that Paul was wearing, when it really meant Ontario Provincial Police?
A - Yeah, that was me.
Q - That was pretty clever.
A - Yeah. That was my joke. I lined up all my Beatles records on my desk, just one after another, (laughs) I went down the line. It was very silly. Walrus is Greek for corpse. There were many clues this was not true. (laughs) I thought it was funny. Fortunately my editor thought it was funny too. We put it out and he came up with the headline "McCartney Dead. New Evidence Brought To Light" and did the layout. Then, it just went crazy. You have to remember, in those days there was not a flood of information. I was a huge fan and as a musician, any word about what they were really like, what their lives were like, was completely revelatory. So, whenever you read something about them, it was like glimpses into the Beatle world. They were very powerful figures in our culture, God knows, for me personally.
Q - There was no VH-1, MTV, cable TV.
A - Exactly. Before People magazine we had Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. That was about it.
Q - And I think Hit Parader was around too.
A - Yes, it was. Wow!
Q - Maybe Circus magazine.
A - Maybe. And Cream, Dave Marsh's magazine came along soon after that. So yeah, God, I'd forgotten about Hit Parader. I used to read that magazine too.
Q - What did that rumor do for you? Did you become a celebrity on campus?
A - In a small circle, I was a big deal. I never wanted to trade on it. I never made money on it. It kind of creeped me out. I've never gone to any Beatle conventions. I've refused invitations to those kinds of things to talk about it. It just didn't seem right to me. So, I've never really done that. But it was bemusing. I'm still kind of bemused by it, that it's still interesting. I can certainly see why because it was such a big deal in its day and people remember that era so vividly and fondly, people of a certain age.
Q - I was told Paul McCartney was actually in a car accident in November of 1966. He had a scar over his lip. That's why he grew a moustache.
A - Is that right? I never knew that. Wow! I see. I don't know. I saw him in Nashville last summer (2010).
Q - You saw the real Paul McCartney? You're sure about that now?
A - I'm pretty sure. (laughs) I always felt sort of awkward that this great idol I was sort of a pain in the butt too, a great idol of mine and certainly one of the great musicians of the 20th century, he actually altered the taste of Pop music completely and has done such a body of work, a brilliant body of work and touched so many people and here's this jack-ass in Michigan causing him all this trouble! People keep coming up and asking him if he's dead. (laughs) It's like, "Paul, I'm sorry." But I did help him sell a lot of records. (laughs)
Q - I take it you have not met him face to face.
A - I have not yet, so far. There's been several attempts by my management to get together with his management to make that happen, but it hasn't happened.
Q - The two of you should meet, don't you think?
A - I would love to. There was a time when I would not have. I would say it would be embarrassing. What if he didn't get the joke? But I think he's such a smart guy, he certainly understands it. When the story came out, I did a show with F. Lee Bailey out in Los Angeles and Peter Asher was there and Allen Klein. Peter Asher is reading my story out loud and not realizing that it's funny. He's like, "Who is this guy? Who is this idiot that wrote this rubbish?" I'm sitting there. "Well see, it's like a joke." (laughs) So, it was sort of embarrassing to be in that situation, but God I hope he's figured it out by now.
Q - How many gigs a year do you do with Riders In The Sky?
A - We do about 175 a year.
Q - You're on the move. That's good.
A - Yeah.
Q - You're playing all over the U.S.?
A - All over the U.S. and I think 13 countries. We've won two Grammys. We like to play. It's all the original people too. That's pretty astounding. We just play our cowboy music. We're inspired by the Sons Of The Pioneers and Monty Python. (laughs)
Q - How did you manage to keep all the guys together over the years?
A - We love to play and through the years we've figured out how to stay out of each other's way and get separate hotel rooms, which is critical. (laughs) It's sort of like a marriage, you know? Everybody works for the good of the band. We've always had a lot of camaraderie and a lot of spirit and tons of humor. We laugh all the time. So that certainly is what makes it work. And we've got good people that work with us.
Q - And the travelling doesn't get to you?
A - Yeah. That gets old. But we all have families and kids. So that part of it is certainly tough. On the other hand, if I stay home too much, I get really squirrelly staying home. So, I really need to get out and play.
Q - I spoke to one musician who told me if you don't get off the road at some point, you'll end up dying of a heart attack in some hotel room. Other musicians like the wild life the road offers.
A - Well, we used to be wild. We definitely had our wild era. There's a moment I certainly came to when I had to take my foot off the accelerator or I was not going to live very much longer.
Q - What were you doing that was so wild?
A - Just drinking and drugging and slutting around and being crazy. Just being crazy.
Q - But isn't that what being in a band is all about?
A - It was to me at the time.
Q - That's what the public thinks bands do.
A - Well, that's part of your job. Show business rewards extreme behavior. So we were happy to oblige. (laughs)
Q - And you lived to talk about it!
A - Fortunately I married a woman who understands and is my complete partner in the whole enterprise. We've managed to raise a great family and we're still together and still lovin' it.